Author: Amelia Gray
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press, FC2
Price: $15.50 (Paper); $9.99 (ebook)
04/04/2011 "Museum of the Weird" is, to say the least, not for everyone. This volume is the winner of the Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction and so is by definition odd, quirky, edgy, non-realistic. The entries in that contest should in fact be "too challenging, innovative, or heterodox for the commercial milieu." Furthermore, the work should in "style, subject matter or form" push "the limits of American publishing."
For me the best, most startling, and limit-pushing story was "Waste."
The protagonist Roger's job is to pick up medical waste from the various plastic surgery offices in town. His cargo smells bad and so does he.
After showering, however, he visits his neighbor, Olive, who is a chef at a vegetarian restaurant but at home is a worshipper, a devotee, of meat. On his first visit, she cooks him chorizo, made she says, from many parts of the pig, including lymph nodes and salivary glands No part of the pig goes to waste.
So far so good.
On a subsequent visit she serves him, in garlic and butter, a human tongue she has purchased for two thousand dollars. Olive explains: "It's from this freaked-out monastery where the monks cut out their own tongues to get closer to God. They dehydrate them and sell them….I've been saving all year to get one. Apparently they're like pate."
Roger tries it but when "his own tongue touched the tongue he was eating …he felt strange."
On a subsequent visit Roger finds that Olive has cut off all the toes on her left foot, for a stew, she says.
This story may have been inspired by the television shows of Anthony Bourdain, who once ate a beating cobra heart, or Andrew Zimmern who, on his show "Bizarre Foods," will eat anything except durian fruit.
In any case, the choices Olive made were local and seasonal.
This story explores too-muchness, ideas taken to their extreme.
"Trip Advisory: The Boyhood Home of Former President Ronald Reagan" is in the nature of metafiction, exploring levels of reality and the imitation of reality.
Written in the form of a visitor's brochure, much like some of the fiction of Michael Martone, the narrative tells us that the house was in fact one of many Reagan childhood homes and then only for three years from age 10 to 13.
Almost nothing is the house is original to the site. The reason given for this is that "Old things smell terrible."
If, as Plato says, this material world is an imitation of the ideal world, and this story is a fiction about a place which is itself essentially a fiction, this story becomes an imitation of an imitation of an imitation.
"Trip Advisory," like the story about meat, is not for everyone, but, obviously, for very different reasons.
There are 24 stories in this collection with an average length of six pages, so they are brief little riffs. One does not immerse oneself in the worlds of these fictions. This kind of fiction can't be sustained for long anyway. Few sit reading Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" for extended periods.
But the variety is remarkable.
There is a story about a man who gets into a big suitcase and won't get out. He runs into trouble at the airport.
Another takes place in a gravel pit, with characters quarreling over the dialogue in "Casablanca" and endlessly waiting, as in "Godot."
In "Vultures" there are vultures everywhere, ominously waiting. Attempts are made to invent vulture repellent.
Another is about a character with a blockage at the back of her throat. As time passes, it grows, as if it were a fetus. This is an odd and unsettling little story.
Leaving the world of the real entirely is the story "Fish." It begins thusly: "Dale was married to a paring knife and Howard was married to a bag of frozen tilapia. Each had fallen into their respective arrangements having decided independently that there was no greater match for them in life." Being married to a bag of frozen tilapia is not recommended for everyone, and neither are these stories.
Only you know if they are for you.